HC Deb 17 January 1977 vol 924 cc18-20
14. Mr. Joseph Dean

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the Chairman of the Electricity Generating Board to discuss the Board's future programme.

13. Mr. Wigley

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he expects to meet the Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Mr. Benn

I am in frequent contact with the Chairman on a variety of matters affecting the Board's business.

Mr. Dean

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement that he is in constant contact with the Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board. Next time he sees the Chairman, will he discuss with him a refurbishing programme for the 46 500-MW traditional power stations? This would be a highly labour-intensive exercise and would give the grid a 30 per cent. increase. If carried out on a phased programme, including the building of Drax B, it would saitsfy our electricity needs for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Benn

Yes, Sir. These points are of great importance. This has a bearing on the load for the industry. The advancement of the Drax B order has been one of the main items on the agenda in my discussions with the Chairman of the CEGB.

Mr. Michael Latham

If the right hon. Gentleman decides to tell the Board to commission Drax B against its commercial wishes, will the Government pay a subsidy to the Board for it or will the electricity consumers pay?

Mr. Benn

I take this opportunity to say that the figures published by the Board about the cost to the consumers of advancing Drax B are figures for which it must take the responsibility. They are not Government figures. I invite those who take an interest in these matters to look carefully at the assumptions on which the figures are based. It is not unknown for the Government to play some part in influencing the timing of power station ordering. The Ince B station was advanced by the Conservative Government. The CPRS report made it clear that the industry required a steady ordering programme. If we can achieve that out of these discussions, we shall have achieved a very great deal.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his reply will be welcomed in the south of my constituency, where 6,000 workers are dependent on the CEGB's ordering of power plant? Can he give an assurance that he is looking not only at Drax B but at the forward ordering of power plant and the question of assistance for export orders? Will he also give an assurance that questions of mergers which will necessarily be matters for long-term discussions will not hold up short-term developments that would save jobs and get the power plant industry to a position in which it can survive?

Mr. Benn

These questions are of great importance. Those who work in the industry have played a considerable part in putting forward recommendations which have greatly improved the quality of the CPRS report, and I pay tribute to them publicly for that. The industry has undoubtedly suffered from very wide fluctuations in its ordering levels and costs. For example, three years ago 22 power stations appeared to be wanted very early, and now one looks into the future with great uncertainty.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry is primarily responsible for questions of mergers and whether it is right to approach problems of rationalisation of the industry. They do not fall within my departmental responsibility. 1 am, however, concerned to see that there is an industry capable of meeting a consistent and measured home demand and of playing an increasing part in getting its share of world markets for this equipment.

Mr. Gray

While the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to associate himself with the figures produced by the CEGB, may I point out to him that his own Department envisaged the possibility of a 4 per cent. increase, and that in these terms a 4 per cent. increase across the board in charges for energy would be a very serious matter for the consumers?

Mr. Benn

I appreciate that there would be a burden on consumers if it were done a certain way. I also appreciate that the Conservative Government decided to make money available to help advance the Ince B station and that that is a rational kind of decision for a Government to take if public expenditure permits. But I want to establish clearly that I, as Secretary of State, am not responsible for statistics published by the fuel industries in their competitive battles with each other. I am not saying that there would not be an increase if the cost was wholly carried by the consumers, but where fuel industries are engaged in presenting their best case in arguing against other fuels or whatever else it might be the Secretary of State cannot have paternity suits laid against him on behalf of so many children of different appearance.